16 November 2017
Network (a play by Lee Hall)
The National Theatre
reviewed by Adam McCormack
Star rating ****
The last few years have seen a number of notable parting shots. Liam Byrne’s “I’m afraid there is no money” for the new Chancellor of the Exchequer in 2010 and more recently the switching off of president Trump’s Twitter feed. However, none comes close to that of Howard Beale (Bryan Cranston). Howard has spent his life as a news anchorman and, with little else in his life, he is plunged into despair when his old friend and boss Max (Douglas Henshall) tells him that, due to falling ratings, he is being let go. With a week to go Howard announces on air that his parting shot the following week will be just that – he will shoot himself.
Despite the resultant pandemonium Howard is given the chance of a final broadcast so that he can leave with dignity. Again, he goes off message to give a frank assessment of the state of the nation – despite hilarious attempts to silence him. The chaos should put a total end to his career, but the episode prompts a huge rally in the ratings. Cue the arrival of an ambitious and unscrupulous TV executive Diana (Michelle Dockery). Diana is unable to maintain a personal relationship or even a sexual encounter for more than moments, but there is nothing she will not do to achieve her career goals. She seduces Max both intellectually and physically, to ensure that, far from fading into obscurity, Howard Beale becomes a prime time TV prophet. Howard however, does not care about the success of the Network. In fact he abhors all that it stands for and counsels his audience to reject the supply of news from corporate entities and to switch off. What should the Network do, when the very source of its increasing success and revenues is arguing for its demise?
Lee Hall’s adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s film carries just as much power and resonance as it did in 1976. This is a biting satire that makes us question how we receive our information and what the underlying political and corporate drivers are behind it. Not for the first time this year the staging at the National is a revelation, but this time they have created something that could be the future of theatre. The incorporation of TV cameras allows us to witness the agony, epiphany and revelation of Howard in close-up, as well as to see the action that takes place beyond the stage and even outside the theatre. Mounting the soundscape artists above the stage adds to the immersive experience and the countdowns into the TV shows adds to both the tension and realism. The interaction goes still further, by making us part of the TV audience, generating applause and the incantation of Beale’s famous mantra: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore”.
This is a play that requires perfect timing and Ivo van Hove’s direction is pinpoint to perfection. Such intense and up-close theatre requires sublime acting, and Bryan Cranston produces what must be the theatrical performance of the year. His disintegration is painful to watch, and his delivery of the two major speeches brings to mind the very best performances of King Lear. Peter Finch got an Oscar for the film role and Mr. Cranston is worthy of similar theatrical accolades. Michelle Dockery also excels and, while Douglas Henshall’s accent may occasionally slip, his performance never does.
Surprisingly, this project was planned before President Trump’s election. What was satire in the 1970’s seems painfully real in 2017. Nevertheless, that does not stop it being funny as well as thought provoking.
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